INTERVIEW WITH A EUROSCRIPT SCREENWRITING COMPETITION WINNER - PAUL SELLARS
Paul Sellars won the Euroscript Screen Story Competition 2004 with Une Belle Folie (now called 'The Judas Boy').
Here's how his development process went.
Euroscript: When you submitted your entry, at what stage was the idea? Treatment or finished script?
Paul: A treatment. I hadn’t got round to writing a script yet. I had a longer treatment already written which provided me with the plot backbone and character portraits so things were ready for the off if I won. I had a lot of research to do too so I guess I needed to win to give me the encouragement to carry on. Otherwise I may not have completed the script as quickly as I did. Winning meant I wasn’t the only one who thought the story had possibilities.
Euroscript: What did you think was going to happen as a result of winning the competition? And how did the reality differ?
Paul: Naturally I thought winning would be another step to fame and fortune… Actually I had no pre-conceived ideas. I knew, when I entered, that it was going to be an evolutionary process. The way the Euroscript prize is structured is all about working through a story, defining characters, plot et cetera. It’s not a quick fix. I also knew I’d have to work harder than I thought after receiving the first script report feedback which totalled fifteen pages! Not just skimpy notes either, they were very extensive. Page for page comments sometimes. Then more margin annotations on the hard copy when it was returned to me.
I remember it only too clearly… one paragraph of praise, 14 pages of slagging -- welcome to the real world…a bit of a bruising maybe but criticism is something you and your story have to live with. Of course, initially I got angry about some of the comments but then realized that maybe Fenella Greenfield (my Euroscript script editor/mentor) had a relevant point or two, if not ten, to make. It’s no good being selfish about your work, another person’s insight can be of great help. Collaboration is not something to hide from. Though you must stick up for what you believe in at all times. We often had skirmishes via email. But if I put up a good enough case for something then that would be it. She would never force her story into mine. That never ever happened.
Euroscript: How do you think your script developed from the first draft to the second? And from the second to the third?
Paul: The first draft was lengthy and in hindsight probably too convoluted. Too caught up in the period of the piece. I was also caught between two characters…both strong, both fighting for attention and therefore the story was a little muddled because of it.
Second draft was more about editing and fleshing out the characters, streamlining the story. The major thing was giving a lesser character more of a significant role. He gave the story an edge that wasn’t really there before.
The script’s title also changed. I think that happened around the third draft…From Une Belle Folie (A Beautiful Madness) French, somewhat pretentious, to The Judas Boy. I think it’s a much better title and is the crux of the story.
From there the script seemed to get a clearer focus.
I decided to study the various character arcs in the final draft. It’s not rocket science, just focuses you. Isolating the various characters in their scenes, making sure they’re doing what they should be doing and not getting in the way of one another. I have three very forceful characters and at times it was easy to lose sight of which one was the main protagonist. The audience needs to know who they should be rooting for. If that is blurred then the script is not working.
At the end of the day though, it’s all about re-writing…re-writing…re-writing.
Euroscript: What did you learn about your story, and how it was being told, during this process?
Paul: The story changed more than I thought possible. I learned very quickly that, as mentioned above, re-writing can be constructive, a positive thing, not destructive. So many people shy away from this, I did to begin with, believing I had a great story, not much needed to be altered. But I soon realised there were holes, undefined blurry characters. When you’re close to a story you can get blinkered and head off down a cul de sac. Having someone, Fenella in this case, asking questions and getting you to really study a character, was a great help.
Euroscript: What was most valuable about going through this process?
Euroscript: What tips would you give other writers thinking of entering the competition?
Paul: Do it. Enter. It’s a great leveller as well as a good experience. If you think you have a great story with interesting characters then don’t keep it in a drawer, do something with it. A competition like Euroscript can help you no end. The rigorous script editing that goes on is something you’ll really appreciate in the long run.
Always listen. Don’t think you know it all. You don’t.
Euroscript: Anything else you want to say?
Paul: What should I do with my script once it's been through the development process? Do I send it off to an agent? The BFI? Some help with this would be something I think Euroscript could get involved with more. Especially as they have been a partner in the process. They should want to get it made and get some credit for it.
PAUL'S CAREER SINCE WINNING
Since winning the Euroscript story competition with The Judas Boy (current title, known then as Belle Folie), I have continued writing spec scripts and recently taken on a number of writing assignments and script commissions. Not everything has come to fruition but hey, if it was that easy everyone would be doing it.
Last year I was asked to write a script from two producers’ idea. This was an interesting process as they already had a script written which they weren’t happy with. They didn’t give me the script to read but gave an outline to their thinking. I was tasked to create a new story and characters, re-invent the whole thing. I wrote a lengthy treatment and then commissioned to write the script.
As the idea is set in Ireland, Code of War' will be a co-production with the producers’ South African company and their Irish financiers. The process took about six months from initial chat to third draft of script.
Because the SA producers appreciated how I handled 'Code of War' I was flung another script they’d had written and asked to comment on it. I gave them my notes and after that they commissioned me to write a new script. It’s not just a simple re-write assignment (as I thought it would be), the structure of the original script and the characters need a lot of work. Plus there’s a lot of research to do on it. The actual writing will take place end of April beginning of May.
A few years ago I was commissioned to adapt Carolyn Slaughter’s novel, 'The Black Englishman' A story set in India and England during the twenties. I’d done another adaptation years before for the producer, a thriller, which bit the dust, but this was an interesting project for me as romance wasn’t a genre I was used to. Although it had a dramatic backdrop, intrigue and great characters, the love story was what held it together. Unfortunately, as in most novels, the main character’s 'internalising' was a hindrance; especially as she was always sitting on a train thinking things through. Nothing worse than copping out, having narrator chat over a woman sitting staring mournfully out of a train window. I made the script linear, built up one of the lesser characters as they needed to be a foil to help the main character’s story, and added more drama. But never lost the tone of the novel.
The producers are based in Prague and LA. They had a falling out and I’m not sure what happened to the project or if the rights have lapsed. Pity as it would have made a nice film. I did make enquiries about buying the rights from them but it’s a legal tangle so until they’ve ended their dispute the film is on the blocks.
Frustrating but . . . move on.
I wrote a spec script 'Still Life', a thriller. Fenella helped with a report on that before I sent it out. I tend to use her as a sounding board on most of my scripts; Code of War being a recent example. A commercials director who the agent CAA is desperate to find a feature film project for has optioned the script and hopefully he’ll get it done. But as with all these things, you never know. It all sounds fantastic at first then the enthusiasm dies down, they are doing other stuff, and you find yourself in no man’s land, with a cool script that has a year of option still left on it.
So, you do something else and if the movie doesn’t get made, you get the option back, find a new home for the script . . . nothing is wasted. I’ve learned that. Nothing you do is ever wasted. You might want to change something further down the line, re-do a character, another director or producer will maybe want their own vision of it - but what you write, if it’s fallen by the wayside once before, is never wasted.
'The Judas Boy' - the script from the Euroscript story competition I won – has gone through various stages of transition. Originally, I had a section set in the Paris riots of 1968. But something always niggled me. There seemed to be a lot of films and TV programmes dealing with the 1968 Paris riots at the time so I looked for a more original setting. After a few re-writes I changed things to include a little known massacre of Algerian protesters in Paris in 1961. It’s an incident that the French like to forget, involving the murder of innocent women and children. It helped transform the story and the main character. Which just goes to show that rewriting can be a tremendous help rather than a chore, which so many people think it is.
Everyone has their favourite quote about revising/rewriting - Hemingway’s is pretty good:
Hemingway: 'I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
(Ernest Hemingway, 'The Art of Fiction', The Paris Review Interview, 1956)
'Getting the words right', may not be the perfect explanation of the messy, sometimes frustrating process that we call revising but we're not likely to find a more succinct description of it. For most writers, 'getting the words right' is the secret of writing well. So is finding original settings and characters.
The Judas Boy is currently with a German/UK producer and hopefully something will come of it.
The same producer is interested in a spec script I wrote about three years ago, 'The Smile of Angels'. I sent it to a Jewish Foundation who were looking to fund film projects at the time. It didn’t get anywhere but the subject matter appealed to the producer and we are currently in negotiation over the rights and, from my point of view, the viability of it getting produced. Otherwise, if I don’t feel confident I’ll go elsewhere.
The project I’m going to be involved with now is a thriller. I thought long and hard before I took the project on as it involves a serial killer and I’ve already written one of those movies with 'Still Life'. (In fact 'Still Life' was what made them approach me in the first place. They’d read it and thought I could do a good job for them. Funny how these things work). Because the police investigation is such a different angle on things though I found it an interesting story. Not just the usual b-movie crap packed with gratuitous violence.
We’ll see how things turn out.
In 2011/2012 I attended and graduated from the Faber and Faber novel writing course. It was a six-month intensive course and was great fun, being surrounded by like-minded writers from different backgrounds. I thought it was worth doing as I had an idea that could make a viable novel. Obviously it’s a totally different discipline but really enjoyable.
On completion I sent it to a few agents and got some interesting replies. 'Have you ever thought of making this into a film?' and 'This would make a great mini-series, have you ever thought of doing that?'
You can’t win can you? There goes my idea of swanning it as a novelist.